The best media story you’ll read today is this deep, sad dive by Rosie Gray into RT, the Russian propaganda network with ambitions of being a trusted cable news source for disgruntled Americans. Gray asked a question that probably occurs to anyone who finds his/her TV on RT for a while. Who works for this network? What American signs up to file stories on how Russia’s clearly in the right when it invades Ukraine? The answer: people who want good-paying jobs that let them cover real news instead of “snowstorms or the puppy parade.” RT allows broadcast talent to make the leap from the usual Grand Forks-to-Grand Rapids-to-Chicago-to-D.C. star system and find themselves reporting on international news at age 23 or 24.
RT has been a small source of fascination and wonder to D.C. journalists for years. Julia Ioffe wrote a definitive profile of the network’s coverage in 2010; in 2011 I moseyed into the studios of RT to explore its (relatively new) shows pitched to skeptical, libertarian viewers. Coming in as I was going out: Jared Bernstein, formerly Joe Biden’s economic adviser. At that time, RT’s frequently bizarre “news” coverage was being interrupted during the midday for a block of opinion shows.
Thom Hartmann’s liberal talk show was part of that, as was Adam Kokesh’s “voluntaryist” hour, as was Alyona Minkovski’s dive into the news. Minkovski, who later left RT for HuffPost Live, was a naturally talented interview with a preference for guests skeptical of American power. She interviewed Julian Assange four years ago, when he was pushing out the “Collateral Murder” video, before the leaked diplomatic cables.
Minkovski’s show booked quite a few of my friends in D.C., mostly libertarian pundits and scholars. Why was a network that covered the 2008 invasion of Georgia as an act of Russian liberation so interested in American libertarians? Because libertarians fit into the larger narrative that America was a decadent and declining power. RT focused a lot of attention on Ron Paul’s movement; it was RT that got the first exclusive sit-down with Rand Paul after he won his May 2010 primary for U.S. Senate.
And as Gray reports, RT did quite a lot of coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Same reason why: To the international viewer, footage of angry protesters sleeping in parks portrayed America as a power nearing some long-delayed revolution or implosion.
After Minkovski left the network, I saw fewer credible pundits make the walk to RT studios. I know of at least one magazine that warned its staffers not to go on anymore. Without sitting and auditing all of RT’s coverage, it seems like the network’s American opinion took more cues from the fringe. This is where Abby Martin, a 9/11 truth activist and artist came in. In 2010 RT was getting exclusives with Rand Paul; in 2012 Martin was ambushing Paul to challenge his endorsement of Mitt Romney—a “Goldman Sachs, Bilderberg puppet.”
It was Martin’s on-air denunciation of the Ukraine incursion that woke up the media, again, to the strangeness of RT. It was anchor Liz Wahl’s on-air resignation and Martin’s quick back-peddling that deepened the strangeness, and brought new media attention, and will probably make it even harder for RT to book top guests. No secret here: D.C. (and New York) are in ready supply of pundits who want to go on TV shows and collect clips of themselves to show bookers for other TV shows. RT was a possible stop along the way, but some tanks in Crimea might have ended that.